Even if your workshop is bursting with power tools, a decent handsaw is perhaps the only essential that is as irreplaceable as a hammer.
‘Manual tools may not be ideal for big projects, but when it comes to precision and simplicity, they usually win hands down,’ says Handyman contributor Gun Arvidssen.
‘If you’re only making one or two quick cuts, a handsaw is much less of a hassle than plugging in and cleaning up after a power tool.’
Manual saws vary greatly in shape, size and structure, and also whether the blade is held under tension, is self-supporting or is reinforced along its back edge.
They take effort to use, so choose one that is comfortable to hold, as it will be so much more tedious if it gives you blisters.
Ranging from general purpose tools for making straight cuts in timber, to those designed to cope with tight turns or materials including tile, metal, plasterboard and plastic, there’s a manual saw for almost every DIY application.
General purpose handsaw
This classic design, also called a panel saw, has stood the test of time. The distinctive angled shape of the hand guard makes it easy to quickly mark cut lines at 90 or 45º.
Many mass-produced handsaws have induction-hardened teeth that hold a sharp edge much longer than untempered saws. The downside is that such saws are impractical to resharpen.
This type of saw has a rigid blade that cuts on the push stroke, usually about 500-560mm, and a pitch that is rarely much coarser than 8tpi.
This classic design, also called a panel saw, has stood the test of time
This is still the tool of choice for fine detail work, ranging from cutting the inside corner of a skirting profile to negotiating tight turns.
A scroll saw can often be used instead, but it’s more expensive and less manoeuvrable if a workpiece needs to be cut in situ.
The blade is held between a pair of slotted pins that can be turned to enable cutting at any angle relative to the frame. The pin at the handle end is threaded to wind in and out of the handle, tensioning the blade.
This is still the tool of choice for fine detail work
As sliding compound mitresaws have become more affordable and popular, tenon saws have largely fallen out of favour as the tool used to make the joints they are named for.
They are usually about 12tpi and feature a reinforced back, making them easier to use for precise sawing and a smoother finish.
This makes them perfect for cutting tenons, but the same qualities are valuable when cutting mitre joints, especially from intricately shaped mouldings.
Tenon saws easier to use for precise sawing and a smoother finish
With a narrow, rigid blade that can be mounted either vertically or horizontally, a keyhole saw is designed to cut in confined or awkward spaces, and is usually sold with blades for timber and metal.
It is used for similar applications as a jigsaw, but in situations where a power tool would be too unwieldy or finer control is needed. It’s great for cutting openings in sheet materials after a starter hole is drilled.
A keyhole saw can be a good manual alternative to a jigsaw
This is the shortened version of a general purpose handsaw. It’s small and light enough to be taken anywhere while offering a similar tpi count and other benefits of its full-length relative.
It’s a popular backup saw that can be taken to worksites or kept for special occasions when a brand-new, factory-sharp edge is needed.
This is the shortened version of a general purpose handsaw
Also known as a wallboard saw, this has a short, rigid blade designed specifically for cutting plasterboard. To start the hole, punch the sharp tip through the plasterboard, slightly away from the cut line, by striking the back of the handle.
Saw to the cut line, then along it, and finish by trimming the cut edge of the paper with a utility knife.
A jab has a rigid blade designed specifically for cutting plasterboard
Traditionally, this type of tool was favoured by Japanese carpenters over saws that cut on the push stroke. It’s an extremely versatile saw that comes in a variety of shapes and styles.
The razor sharpness of a pull saw is chiefly the result of how thin the blade can be manufactured.
It is kept straight by tension, rather than relying on the steel’s thickness to resist pushing the teeth through the timber fibres.
The razor sharpness of a pull saw is chiefly the result of how thin the blade can be manufactured
A hacksaw consists of a steel frame holding a narrow, disposable blade under tension by means of a wing nut or a quick-release lever, or both.
Hacksaws are primarily used for cutting metal, but the fine pitch of the teeth also makes them suitable for sawing brittle materials, such as plastic, that can be easily chipped.
A hacksaw blade commonly has a pitch of 24tpi and is sold in lengths ranging from 250 to 400mm, with 300mm being the most popular.
Several frame types are available, including a junior version and a mini hacksaw. This is a handle that grips the blade from the back instead of both ends and should only be used for light jobs.
Hacksaws are primarily used for cutting metal
Similar in form to a miniature tenon saw, this tool is also most commonly used for traditional joinery.
Although routers are now often used to make dovetail joints, doing it by hand is something of an artform.
Some variants feature a modified blade that allows them to cut flush with a surface, but without the flexion that a pull saw entails.
Similar in form to a miniature tenon saw
You may not need to cut a curved shape in a tile often, but a rod saw is about the only tool that can do this.
Standalone rod saws usually have a blade about 150mm long, but blades compatible with 300mm hacksaws are also available.
The carbide-grit blade’s round cross-section allows it to cut in any direction relative to the frame.
You may not need to cut a curved shape in a tile often, but a rod saw is about the only tool that can do this
The Swiss army knife of the toolbox, this usually comes in the form of a straight handle that can hold a range of different blades. Sometypes even have the blade mount on a pivot that allows it to fold into the handle.
They are usually designed to be compatible with reciprocating saw blades, offering a more portable and less heavy-handed way of cutting the same range of materials.
It’s the perfect way to switch from timber to metal to carbide grit in a matter of seconds without carrying around a whole toolbox.
Multi-blade saws are designed to be compatible with reciprocating saw blades
Plastics are often brittle and have low melting points that can make them a challenge to cut neatly and without chipping or cracking.
This saw is designed with the properties of PVC, ABS and other plastics in mind. It has a coated-steel 10tpi blade that resists binding, and teeth that cut on the pull stroke.
Plastic saws are often brittle and have low melting points that can make them a challenge to cut neatly and without chipping or cracking
With a fine pitch and short, stout blade, this tool is great for cutting veneered or laminated materials, ranging from flooring to melamine.
The distinctive nose has its own row of teeth, so you can make plunge cuts by hand. This is invaluable for making cutouts in kitchen cabinetry if a jigsaw is impractical to use.
With a fine pitch and short, stout blade, this tool is great for cutting veneered or laminated materials
Manual saws differ greatly in structure and function, but almost all of them feature a toothed cutting edge with several common properties.
The pitch of a saw is the spacing of the teeth, described in teeth per inch (tpi), or points per inch (ppi). The tpi count is calibrated from the valleys between the teeth, while ppi is from point to point.
The kerf is the width of the cut. The teeth of a saw are splayed outwards slightly, ensuring the kerf is wider than the thickness of the blade itself. This prevents the material being cut from pinching the blade.
The kerf is the width of the cut
Stroke relates to the action of moving the saw towards you and away from you as you cut. Saws can cut on the push stroke or the pull stroke, or both, depending on how the teeth are machined.
Stroke relates to the action of moving the saw towards you and away from you as you cut
Rake is the angle between the leading edge of each tooth and a line drawn at 90º to the row of teeth. Pull saws have a high rake angle of up to 45º while saws that cut on the push stroke are raked about 15º at most.
Rake is the angle between the leading edge of each tooth and a line drawn at 90º to the row of teeth
Manual saw technique
Power tools are convenient for larger jobs that involve a lot of cutting. But for old-school craftsmanship, nothing beats the satisfaction and accuracy of sawing by hand using a tool that was developed for a specialised task.
Cutting an enclosed shape
Drill a 3mm starter hole and unhook the blade from the frame. Feed the blade through the hole, then replace it and wind in the tensioning spindle. Cut out the shape, adjusting the pins to turn the blade as needed.
Drill a 3mm starter hole and unhook the blade from the frame
Making flush cuts
Pull saws are perfect for trimming pieces of timber that are too bulky to cut with a chisel. Press the blade to the surface, bending it as little as possible to keep it under tension, then saw off the dowel using short, gentle strokes.
Pull saws are perfect for trimming pieces of timber that are too bulky to cut with a chisel
Creating a tenon
Clamp the timber firmly, then saw down to the shoulder line, cutting diagonally into the corners first, then sawing parallel with the shoulder line. Saw away the waste at the shoulder and clean up with a chisel.
Clamp the timber firmly then saw down to the shoulder line